Revd Tony Buglass remembers the Methodist Conference meeting in Derby in 1993.
I was a representative to the 1993 Conference in Derby which was to debate the Human Sexuality Report. It was the scariest prospect I’d ever faced: I had already been to Conference a couple of times, so I knew what to expect there, but the Report and the potential for disaster were scary indeed. The Report itself was fair enough, a considered digest of the issues, reference to biblical teaching and tradition, etc. – challenging, but informative. The suggested resolutions were a nightmare. The A Resolutions were a statement that same-sex relationships were as natural as heterosexual relationships, the church should immediately proceed to accepting gay members, blessing gay partnerships, being ready to accept gay marriages whenever they became legal, etc. The B Resolutions were the exact opposite: a complete rejection of gay people, exclusion from membership or office in the church. Were either to be accepted by Conference, the result would be immediate schism, between liberal and conservative Methodist movements. The prospect was terrifying – the fact that I wasn’t the only one who felt that fear was evidenced by the unprecedented number of people who came in early that morning to share communion in Derby cathedral.
The debate was timetabled for the Tuesday of the Representative Session. The Ministerial Session had begun the previous week, and the Representative Session begun over the weekend. The conversation had therefore several days to develop, and the fruit of this began to show quite quickly with Notices of Motion appearing on the daily Order Paper suggesting alternative Resolutions for the debate. They came from various parts of the Church, some reinforcing the point of view of that particular fellowship or pressure group, others seeking to avoid impending disaster – several proposals tried to step away from the Resolutions, proposing that the vote be not put, that Methodism was not ready to make such a decision. They were doomed to fail, as the Conference had already deferred decision on a previous occasion, and knew it had to face the issues.
On the day itself, the whole day had been set aside for the debate. Following opening devotions, there were to be opening statements presenting the Report, and proposing either the A or B Resolutions, then the discussion was to thrown open to the floor until 4.00pm, when closing statements would be made and the various Resolutions put to the vote. I remember the debate as even-handed and gracious, with very little of the extreme passions and viewpoints which we feared. The President Brian Beck chaired with a firm but light touch, reassuring those who stumbled at the tribune: one very nervous speaker apologised to the Conference for forgetting to give her name “Sorry – I’m very nervous!” to which the President leaned forward to the microphone “You think you’re nervous…” The queue for the tribune remained a long one for the whole day, as people got up to say their piece, and it was fairly clear that some wouldn’t get there before the deadline – the request was made several times for anyone whose points had been made by previous speakers to defer rather than repeat them, and make way for those wishing to make new points. It was well done, a real attempt to make sure that the voice of the whole Church was heard and no-one excluded.
Finally, the voting began. There were a lot of Resolutions, many of which were dismissed in short order. It was quickly very obvious that the A and B Resolutions in the Report were not acceptable, they were voted out and replaced by the Resolutions from the floor gathered through the Order Papers. There were tensions between them, if not possible contradictions: how could an affirmation of the traditional understanding of sexuality and marriage stand alongside a celebration of gay and lesbian people within the life of the church? However, as the voting proceeded, some proposals were rejected and others accepted to become the six Resolutions recorded as the decisions of Conference. They evidently came from various parts of the church, expressing different points of view, but by the discernment of the process of voting, were put together to stand as the views of the whole Methodist Church.
The feeling at the end of the day was primarily one of relief that schism had been avoided, although word came through over the next few weeks of ministers who had resigned because of the pro-gay Resolutions. Whether many other members left for the same reasons is not clear. Certainly my own feeling at the time was that we had an untidy set of Resolutions, and this was supported by proposals to the 1994 Conference from various pressure groups within the Church seeking to resolve the tension, usually in line with that groups own preference and to the detriment of ‘the other side’. I wasn’t at that Conference, but heard that such approaches were resisted. The untidiness of the 1993 Resolutions was a perfect illustration of the untidiness of the Church’s mind on the issue. Most notably, it was suggested that we as a Church were at the beginning of ‘a pilgrimage of faith’. This is undoubtedly true, although how long that journey might take or the real nature of the destination is anybody’s guess. That there has been a journey is undoubtedly true: at the 1993 Conference, in line with the Resolutions, ordinands were required to affirm their agreement with the traditional view of sexuality and marriage before Conference agreed to their ordination. Since then, I have known of several friends in ministry who are in same sex marriages while working in circuit and living in the manse – the implication in 1993 was that it would be unacceptable.
The beginning of a journey? I can affirm that is true personally: in 1993 I was not yet persuaded that same sex relationships were acceptable, but was exercised by the pastoral issue – if I were confronted by church members whom I knew were unquestionably Christian, and unquestionably gay, how should I as their minister offer them pastoral support and care? Within a few years, following study and research, I knew I had moved some distance in my own journey of understanding, and would have been more than happy to conduct same-sex marriages or blessings. Like so many on the journey, I’m waiting for the rest of the Church to catch up…